Indigeneity, Language and Authenticity

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Reviving endangered languages

I sometimes get people asking me to give them some kind of crash-course in language revitalisation. Flattering as it is to be considered knowledgeable enough to have anything worth saying on the matter, I regularly tend to ignore these messages as they all seem convinced that there’s bound to be an answer to the question that can be condensed into a catchy one-sentence slogan. The answer, however, is naturally too complex for anyone to be able to turn it into an on one hand authoritarian and on the other hand short message.

‘Talk the language’ or ‘use it’ seem like simple enough statements, but they’re devoid of context and do not explain why so many revitalisation projects actually fail. ‘Teach it in school’ is another catchy slogan that misunderstands the actual power of schools and the role they have often played in making a language endangered in the first place. As Tove Skutnabb-Kangas and Ole Henrik Magga wrote back in 2003, ‘[…] schools alone cannot save languages, [but] schools can kill them more or less on their own’ .

However, without getting too detailed, I’m going to use this post to discuss the matter in far more detail than I’d otherwise do, and if long posts about endangered languages and revitalisation processes aren’t what you usually go for on a Monday evening, please feel free to scroll on by.

So, let’s start at the beginning then – I trust that only those of you who care about this are still reading – what makes a language endangered?

Almost 7000 languages are spoken in the world today, of these a mere handful have become global power languages with hundreds of millions of speakers, whereas the world’s average language, let’s call it Medianese, has between 5500 and 6000 speakers. Now, according to most linguists, Medianese has a slim chance of survival in today’s neo-colonial world;  come 2100, and between 50-95% of all languages on our planet will have died unless something drastic happens. Why is this the case? As I mentioned in an earlier post a while ago, a language becomes endangered when it loses power to another language because of colonialism, a strong belief in homogeneity and the perpetuation of lies about the advantage of globalism. A language with a relatively large number of speakers can be endangered, as is the case with the Celtic languages in the UK, whereas a small language can flourish if it has political, social and cultural power, as is the case with e.g. Icelandic in Iceland. 

Now, what about the distribution of languages around the world? From a linguistic point of view, Europe constitutes an area of language impoverishment, while simultaneously being home to some of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Only 3% of all languages originate from Europe, whereas 33% of all languages can be found in Asia. This has a number of reasons, but perhaps the most obvious one is the formation of nation states in Europe. By creating states, European monarchies relied on the eradication of differences between people in the areas they controlled and by emphasising an arbitrary allegiance to an invented nation state, promoted by a ‘common language’, most European states managed to make every language but the ones used by Europe’s governments endangered. This idea of nation states was carried over to other parts of the worlds, and is one of many reasons as to why all Native American languages are endangered today. 

Right then, now we know why languages become endangered, how do we go about if we want to bring them back? The most important thing here, which many people seem to forget, is that any revitalisation project has to be on the terms of the language community’s speakers, and that without a natural intergenerational language transmission process in place, any attempt to revitalise a language will be unsuccessful. This is not to say that lest a language is spoken at home, it cannot be revived, but in order for a language to be transferred from one generation to the other, it has to be used as a regular, daily medium of communication.  

There are a number of methods that work particularly well when it comes to passing on a language, the most effective one naturally being a natural use of the language at home, where children are encouraged to become active rather than passive users of a language. Other successful forms of revitalisation projects include the establishment of language nests – an idea from New Zealand’s indigenous people – also known as full immersion pre-schools, as well as the use of language mentors, i.e. native speakers that are assigned one student to whom they pass on the language and culture in a natural setting, be it at cultural events or over a cup of tea in a local coffee shop.

A language can also be passed on if it is used as the language of instruction in schools; whenever a language is turned into an object to be studied, rather than into a tool to be used in order to study something else, it has a slim chance of surviving in the long term. If, however, an endangered language is used in the history or maths class room, in other words in a natural setting, it will most likely be picked up and end up being used by children and teenagers that otherwise wouldn’t have spoken the language.

Now, this all seems fairly straight-forward, but far too often language revitalisation turns into little more than a failed attempt at keeping a dying language alive. Many people think of revitalisation as a Philosopher’s Stone, but use it wrong. Wanting to revitalise a language is simply not enough, believing in the powers of schools to pass on a language is equally misguided.

One of the main reasons as to why language revitalisation projects are unsuccessful is because far too many people believe that the necessary intergenerational transmission can be replaced with a weekly dose of a couple of hours dedicated to the studying of a language, when the truth is that this will never be successful, unless the language is used constantly around a child. Schools are seen as centres of power by endangered language communities, but cannot become that, lest the language is used as a tool of instruction.

Another problem is the general public’s all too big trust in linguists ability to revitalise a language; many people don’t think of language revitalisation as a community task, but far more as a task to be carried out by a select few for the sake of the community. This is misguided and often makes the very real contribution everyday speakers do to the survival of the language seem less useful. 

Moreover, to this day it is far more common to talk about an endangered language than to actually use it, and this is intensely problematic. When even the people the general public considers in charge of the revitalisation project fail to use the language in public, it will not, it cannot survive. The choice to talk about a language rather than to use it is often justified with the belief that to speak an endangered language among non-speakers would exclude them from the conversation, but by believing in this lie is to fall prey to the power structures that made the language endangered in the first place.

When a language is being revitalised, we don’t have the time or space to coddle the  people who speak the majority language and feel left out. 

Another thing that often leads to the failure of language revitalisation project is the general tendency to focus on an idealised past. No language is static and if we allow ourselves to fall prey to the idea of pure languages, the language will not survive. Languages change and it is by far more important to have a slightly different, yet living language, than a language that is perceived to be ‘purer’ but is ultimately a dead language.

Finally, if you truly want to revitalise a language, you must make it a way to live by giving it a natural place in all spheres of daily life, rather than by focusing on it as an object that has to be acquired or else. Making a language mandatory ignores the cultural and historical background that led to its current state of endangerment; it might be possible to pass on an endangered language to an outsider by using a traditional L2 learning approach, but it does not work in the long-term with members of the community who come to the language with a feeling of guilt, loss and more often than not anger.

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1 Comment

  1. […] language that is revitalized maintains infinite resources for the documenter and the researcher as the process encourages native speakers to continue using and pass on their […]

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